Periodically, we’ve noted instances where actual events enter naval fiction set during the Age of Sail will little more than the names of people and ships changed. Sometimes the actual events are toned down for the novel because of the implausibility of the real event, such as Cochrane taking El Gamo or Nelson using one Spanish first rate as a bridge to board and take a second first rate.
Another incident ties together Midshipman Horatio Hornblower, Lieutenant Lord Ramage, and Commodore Horatio Nelson. Fog and the Spanish Fleet.
In the short story, Hornblower, the Duchess, and the Devil, which is included in C. S. Forester’s Mr. Midhipman Hornblower, Hornblower, commanding a prize en route to England, finds himself enshrouded in fog, a fog which also includes the Spanish fleet and is subsequently captured and imprisoned at the fortress at Ferrol. In Dudley Pope’s Ramage, Lieutenant Lord Ramage, commanding the cutter HMS Kathleen, finds himself in the same unpleasant circumstances. He however, evades imprisonment, gains key intelligence on the Spanish fleet then in port in Cartagena, and is able to warn Admiral Sir John Jervis of their intentions.
The real story is just as strange.
HMS Speedy (14) under Lord Thomas Cochrane takes the Spanish frigate El Gamo (32)
A quick perusal of this blog will show that I’ve shied away from writing much on major figures of the Age of Sail. While I have biographical entries on lesser known figures, like Sir Henry Duncan and Midshipman Flinders, there is no story on Horatio Nelson or, perhaps the most swashbuckling figure of the Napoleonic Wars, Lord Thomas Cochrane.
My reasoning is grounded equally in two sensibilities, practicality and snobbishness. Practicality because these two men have been the subject of an immense amount of study and literature and there is little I could add to anyone’s understanding of either. Snobbishness because these two men, etc. etc.
I’ll be deviating from this a bit as I delve more deeply into Dudley Pope’s Nicholas Ramage novels because Pope, probably because of his background as a chronicler of the Royal Navy, pulls in a significant number of incidents from the lives of these two men as plot elements.
Now to the story.
King’s Captain covers the career of Dewey Lambdin’s naval hero Alan Lewrie from Valentine’s Day 1797 through the collapse of the Nore Mutiny in June 1797.
Following his adventure in Jester’s Fortune, Lewrie finds himself and Jester still under the command of Admiral Sir John Jervis in his Mediterranean Fleet that now, by the loss of Toulon, Corsica, and the Italian states, has been effectively expelled from the Mediterranean.
Major spoilers follow.
HMS Zebra providing covering fire to Commander Robert Faulknor at Fort Louis, Martinique
We’ve mentioned a few times that the writers of naval fiction set during the Age of Sail have an immense amount of material available to them that only needs minor adjustments to read as fiction.
For instance, the HMS Cockerel, an Alan Lewrie novel by Dewey Lambdin, there is an interesting scene set at the end of the novel. The setting is a dinner aboard the flagship of Admiral Sir Samuel Hood. Lieutenant Lewrie is fresh from the siege of Toulon where he managed to capture a French corvette. The corvette is named San Culotte (in real life a 118-gun first rate) and Lewrie jokes about how it will have to be renamed as it would quickly be known as the “Bare Assed” by British sailors. Hood is amused and renames the Sans Culotte the HMS Jester in honor of Lewrie’s wit and appoints him into her as commander.
Many historical characters wend their way through the nautical fiction of the Age of Sail. The Royal Navy was a fairly small organization, especially in the number of officers, and as employment was gained via interest and patronage it is essential that the heroes in these books have a patron. If the character is to insinuate himself into real events, the patron must be real.
We’ve already touched on the initial sponsor of young Midshipman Alan Lewrie, Admiral Sir Samuel Hood. Fans of Horatio Hornblower will know that he achieved post rank through the patronage of Admiral Sir William Cornwallis. One significant figure crosses the stage frequently but thus far I have yet to encounter him as a patron of one of our heroes.
That figure is the imminently unlovable John Jervis, Earl of St. Vincent.
The Articles of War governed the life of every officer, sailor, and marine in the Royal Navy, and indeed the United States Navy, during the Age of Sail. They are nothing if not a clarion call to duty and subordination to legal authority.
They are clear, uncompromising, and severe. But they kept the Royal Navy at sea during times when Britain seemed sure to be swamped by its enemies on the Continent and made Lord St. Vincent’s 1801 statement before the House of Lords, “I do not say, my Lords, that the French will not come. I say only they will not come by sea,” an observation of fact not a boast.
Read them here.